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Whistling past the graveyard

With boomers graying and starting to ponder the end of their lives, here's an opportunity for publishers to get ahead of the curve and produce meaningful, challenging books.

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Baby boomers are moving from applauding the Grateful Dead to worrying about a graceless death, and their interests continue to push publishers. When the boomers were teething, Dr. Spock's guidebook seemed omnipresent. When some of them participated in late-1960s college protests, Charles Reich's The Greening of America topped the bestseller list with predictions of how this best of all generations would change the United States. When one of them exhibited, with Monica Lewinsky, the generation's notorious self-centeredness, anti-Clinton books sold big.

Now, as boomers turn the corner toward old age, books about views on death will emerge by the truckload. The soft rain already has begun, judging by the bestselling success of Tuesdays with Morrie, and by 25 other books on death and dying published within the last six years and sent me by publishers in response to my queries. But much of American culture still is "exhibiting a touch of, um, denial," as Newsweek noted about recent films that have had "death scenes airbrushed out of movies."

We try to avoid the pathos evident in Christina Rossetti's lovely 19th-century line, "And all the winds go sighing,/For sweet things dying." But since there is no exit from death, books about painkillers that ease dying's physical hurts will be hot, and even hotter will be works that can stop emotional pain from cutting as deep as a scalpel.

What follows has three parts:

First, using two of the books and also numerous collections of sayings, I establish three baselines: pagan, medieval, and modern views of death over the past two centuries.

Second, I critique and give highlights from the other 23 books, which fall into five categories: secular, New Age, comparative religion, Jewish, and Christian.

Third, I discuss the Christian alternative, and propose ways for Christian publishers to get ahead of the curve. And one note to curious readers: My experience in research and writing this essay has been similar to that of one of the authors reviewed in what follows, Virginia Morris. She writes, "Once you overcome your initial repulsion for this subject, learning about death really isn't scary, depressing, or dangerous." She notes that "obsessing blindly about death is horrifying," but learning about it wakes us up "from the numbness of daily life. My petty quests-for a bigger advance ... whatever is on my mind that day-seems laughable." Suddenly, a kiss is not just a kiss, the wind in your face is something special, and even typing on a computer is vivid, important, and wonderful.

Mrs. Morris also notes a reason for most of the readers of this essay to keep going: "Hanging on the edge of a precipice, engulfed by terror, is not the time or place to learn about emergency rock-climbing procedures; you have to learn about them before you start the expedition. Likewise, we have to start learning about death now, while we are still healthy ... before we are blinded by denial and fighting valiantly for hope."


How did European pagans deal with death before they embraced Christianity? How did Christians surrounded by death during the Middle Ages think through the issues? How has our increasingly secular society over the last two centuries tended to view death?

Mike Parker Pearson, The Archaeology of Death and Burial

Mr. Pearson's book examines many ancient cultures, but the most fascinating pages of the book are the first two. He quotes a description of the funeral of a Scandinavian merchant in a.d. 921 or 922 (Christianity becomes the religion of Denmark in 960 and Kievan Rus in 988.) While the merchant's corpse waits in a wooden box, associates use a third of his wealth to make or purchase nabid, an alcoholic drink that they consume abundantly as part of a 10-day sexual orgy. A slave girl who is to be burned with the merchant also spends the time in drinking and promiscuous sexual activity.

On the 10th day the associates take out the corpse, clothe it in rich fabrics, prop it up with cushions, and surround it with nabid, fruit, meat, and other food. Many people play musical instruments as the merchant's relatives set up tents. The slave girl makes the rounds of the tents to have sexual intercourse with each of the relatives, who then announce loudly, "Tell your master that I have done the duty of love and friendship." The slave girl consumes more nabid and has intercourse with six more men. Then the six strangle her with a cord, while an old woman plunges a broad-bladed dagger between her ribs. The corpses of the merchant and the slave girl are burned.

Pagan cultures dealt with death in many different ways, some not as grotesque. Many, though, combined sex with funerals as if to declare that life at its most visceral went on. The Scandinavian merchant's code in life was to eat, drink, and be sexually merry, so why not continue in that way of life, by proxy, following death?

Paul Binski, Medieval Death

Fifteenth-century ars moriendi handbooks were as far removed as imaginable from the funeral proceedings described above. These Christianized "art of dying" instructions usually consisted of woodcuts showing the temptations that the book's central character, a dying man, needed to resist. The standard ars moriendi included illustrations of five temptations (unbelief, despair, impatience, pride, and avarice), five illustrations of the biblical inspirations that helped Christians withstand those temptations, and a final portrait showing "the good death."

Medieval Christians did not try to minimize the impact of death by minimizing thought about it. At a time when early death through disease was frequent, they argued that not just the old but everyone should prepare for death. Prospects for eternal life were bound up with a person's faith in his final days, and no one could be sure of which days those might be. Therefore, the goal (at least in theory) was to live each day not in pursuit of temporary pleasures but in line with what the individual would want to show God on judgment day.

Numerous books of quotations on nine ways to fight fear of death, 1800-2000

The pagan baseline: Ignore death. The Christian baseline: Be conscious of its imminence. Which way has our society headed? Wanting to get a quick sense of some post-Enlightenment views of death, I sorted famous quotations-words that are picked up not necessarily because of their wisdom, but because they crystallize the thoughts of many-into nine piles. Three of them suggest that we think about death as non-frightful adventure, sleep, or mystery. Three lay out methods of thinking about life: Minimize its joy, maximize its pleasure, or hope that others will memorialize us. Three represent psychological strategies for appearing to put death in its place: Sneer, joke, or exude bravado.

Death as adventure: Sir Oliver Lodge, a British scientist who dabbled in psychic phenomena a century ago, proclaimed that "Death is not a foe, but an inevitable adventure." James M. Barrie, the British playwright who wrote Peter Pan in 1904 and never wanted to grow up, has Peter in Act 3 proclaim, "To die will be an awfully big adventure." Charles Frohman, the American producer who staged Peter Pan in 1905, declared, "Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure in life." (Frohman died 10 years later when Germans sank the Lusitania.) Death as "but sleep": German author Jean Paul Richter two centuries ago talked of how "Death gives us sleep, eternal youth, and immortality." Joaquin Miller, the "Frontier Poet" of the 19th century, wrote that "Death is dawn, the waking from a weary night of fevers unto truth and light." Humorist James Thurber waxed serious in 1939 as he asked, "But what is all this fear of and opposition to Oblivion? What is the matter with the soft Darkness, the Dreamless Sleep?" Death as solving the mystery: American liberal minister Henry Ward Beecher's last words are said to have been: "Now comes the mystery." Noted actor James Earl Jones in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams smiles broadly as he reaches into the cornfield, a mysterious realm of baseball spirits, and then walks right in, absorbed into the afterlife. Television shows about near-death experiences are advertised as punching through the "wall of mystery" that separates us from afterlives. Death as relief from a depressing life: Mark Twain, a bitter man as he approached old age, wrote in his private notebooks, "O Death where is thy sting? It has none. But life has." He wrote a pessimistic catechism: "Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? Because we are not the person involved." French dramatist Jean Giraudoux, best known for his 1945 play Madwoman of Chaillot, put it elegantly: "Death holds no horrors. It is simply the ultimate horror of life." Death as promoting a grab for the gusto: Popular philosopher George Santayana's clever, "There is no cure for birth and death but to enjoy the interval," is the idea that launched a thousand beer commercials. Henry de Montherlant, the French novelist and dramatist who wrote Mors et Vita in 1932, declared, "There is only one way to be prepared for death: to be sated. In the soul, in the heart, in the spirit, in the flesh. To the brim." Singer Jimmy Buffet turned that sentiment into, "I'd rather die while I'm living than live while I'm dead." Death as no inhibitor of memory: In the 19th century Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "Our dead brothers still live for us." In the 20th French aviator and author Antoine Saint-Exupery wrote in The Wisdom of the Sands, "He who has gone, so we but cherish his memory, abides with us, more potent, nay, more present, than the living man." (But Woody Allen said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying,") Death as an opportunity to attack religion: In the 1950s blue-collar philosopher Eric Hoffer mocked those who needed "some kind of make-believe in order to face death." Italian dramatist and poet Ugo Betti proclaimed, "Your dying breath barely tarnishes the air, and yet you imagine it as your spirit 'returning unto God who gave it.'" Harvard philosophy professor William Ernest Hocking suggested that heavenward looks were absurd: "Man is the only animal that contemplates death, and also the only animal that shows any sign of doubt of its finality." Death as a subject for sardonic jokes: Dorothy Parker in 1928 wrote, It costs me never a stab nor squirm To tread by chance upon a worm. "Aha, my little dear," I say, "Your clan will pay me back one day." Five years later Jean Girardoux provided biting humor: "Death is the next step after the pension-it's perpetual retirement without pay." In the 1960s MAD magazine's character Alfred E. Neuman joined the parade of grisly humor-"Death is nature's way of telling you to slow down"-and television bumbler Maxwell Smart observed, "If you can survive death, you can probably survive anything." Longtime late-night television host Johnny Carson said, "For three days after death, hair and fingernails continue to grow but phone calls taper off." Woody Allen joked in 1976, "It's not that I'm afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens." Death as an opportunity for bravado: Virginia Woolf ended one novel, The Waves, with the words, "Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!" But she drowned herself in March, 1941. Journalist Cyrus L. Sulzberger argued in his mid-century book, My Brother Death, that "the manner of death is more important than death itself. Fine dying is a man's privilege, for that man can himself control." Science-fiction novelist Isaac Asimov declared his dislike for not only hell but heaven as well: "I don't believe in an afterlife, so I don't have to spend my whole life fearing hell, or fearing heaven even more. For whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse."

These nine modern ways to look at death have produced as much long-lasting satisfaction as a piece of sugarless gum. Exploration is exciting, but to go without backpack, canteen, or pith helmet? Sleep derives its ease from the expectation of wakefulness on the morrow; if tomorrow were not expected to come, insomnia would skyrocket. Despite all the attempts, modern times present a history of deepening gloom when considering death.

The mood has worsened as the focus has changed from worry about dying to concern about nothingness. Early in the 17th century Francis Bacon wrote, "I do not believe that any man fears to be dead, but only the stroke of death." In the 18th century novelist Henry Fielding also emphasized the moment: "It is not death, but dying, which is terrible." Both writers could do that because they did not envision the eternal emptiness of death without afterlife. In recent decades, thoughts of annihilation have laid low many. In 1967 Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead transmitted eeriness: "Death is not anything.... It's the absence of presence, nothing more ... the endless time of never coming back ... a gap you can't see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound."

Attempts to ignore death have rarely succeeded. French author and filmmaker Jean Cocteau brooded in 1939, "Since the day of my birth, my death began its walk. It is walking toward me, without hurrying." British poet C.D. Andrews's work in the 1930s showed fatalism about fatality:

Like figures on an ancient clock, Warrior, or saint, or clown (All's one to the machine) that wake When each stale hour is done, And with preliminary whirr Play their allotted role, Stiffly advance, engage, retire Trembling a little still, So blandly nodding Death and I Nearer and nearer march, At the click of night and the click of day, Click-clack! We approach, we approach!

So why publish books about such depressing matters? Essayist Susan Sontag was right in 1978 to note that, in our secular society, "death is the obscene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing that cannot be controlled. It can only be denied." Historian Geoffrey Gorer documented "an unremarked shift in prudery" in the 20th century, with sex going public and death becoming the great unmentionable. But now, as aging boomers slowly lose some interest in sex and can't stop thinking about tomorrow, the books on death are coming.


Have books published over the past half dozen years been able to come to grips with the Grim Reaper? Here's my look at secular, New Age, comparative religion, Jewish, and Christian books about death.

Secular approaches

Joanne Lynn & Joan Harrold, Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness

Those who are dying should embrace the "Four Rs for the Spirit"-remembering, reassessing, reconciling, reuniting-in order to improve relations with relatives and friends. That's all to the good, but the authors have nothing to offer those who want to make peace not only with man but with God. Even for those concerned only with earthly relationships, platitudes-"Often, we discover that what matters most are relationships with others, with ourselves, and with the world that surrounds us"-offer no help in prioritizing.

Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Dying

Well-written stories of dying's pathos mix with an emphasis on psychological constructs. For example, the author refers to the "five major attacks of the devil" in ars moriendi warnings and notes haughtily, "We can, from the perspective of transpersonal psychology, conceptualize these 'attacks of the devil' as 'revelations of self.' Each attack of the devil can be seen as a highlighting of previously unrecognized and repressed parts of the self."

Studs Terkel, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith

This 10th book of interviews by Chicago's Terkel is a grab-bag of the moving and the inane. He records his surprise: "You may be as astonished as I was, while scrounging around, to discover that we reflect on death like crazy much of our lives. The storytellers here, once started on the subject, can't stop." He offers an assessment: "Invariably, those who have a faith ... have an easier time with loss." In one interview, Pastor Tom Kok of the Peace Christian Reform Church describes "the feeling of peace" that members of his congregation have "as they face this great unknown," and he fills in a little of the unknown: "The Bible talks about a new Heaven and a new Earth. I tell my kids all the time, I'm looking forward to walking in the grass and playing baseball." But the book as a whole suggests that there are no objective answers.

Ira Byock, Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life

Dr. Byock, a physician who writes well, describes dramatic attempts at heart resuscitation in hospitals: "These were often literally dramatic: The actors knew the efforts were futile and for show." He shows that "physical pain among the terminally ill exists because doctors lack the will, not the way.... In the minds of too many people today, the answer to unbearable pain among the dying has become assisted suicide or euthanasia, as if effective pain treatment did not exist.... With strong resolve from patient and doctor, relief of physical suffering is always possible." He also understands that "suffering from personal, mental pain is a much more complex and thornier problem ... personal suffering hinges on what gives a person purpose or meaning." He strongly backs the hospice movement as providing quiet opportunities for reflection on purpose as well as reconciliation with family. But this excellent secular book still has no answers about how to be reconciled with God.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross & David Kessler, Life Lessons

Full of deep thoughts, such as, "Often, we don't recognize our goodness until the end of life. We need to remember that we are here to try to remember our goodness."

Virginia Morris, Talking About Death Won't Kill You

Mrs. Morris, a good writer, evocatively examines "the overwhelming sadness.... Whether we have finished our work or not, we don't want to leave the party.... Like the child who resists bedtime, we want to stay up and see what's going to happen." She wants us to contemplate ends so we can "begin the process of reclaiming death," but she sees how hard it is to avoid "gut-churning dread.... The idea of not existing in some way, shape, or form in the future is unnerving." Her ambition is to avoid the dread: "Dying well is about finding peace in the maelstrom." She sees from a utilitarian perspective the importance of "religious beliefs, when they are strong and an integral part of one's life," for they "help to make mortality and the process of dying more manageable." But is making death manageable the best we can do?

Stephen Prothero, Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America

This solidly written history tells how we have moved from a first, much-criticized cremation in 1876, to having one-fourth of all corpses burned rather than buried. That is still far below the cremation rate of Japan (98 percent) or Great Britain and Scandinavia (65-70 percent), but it represents a major cultural change. Cremation took its biggest jump in popularity within the United States when it gained counter-cultural victory: "Funerals are extravagant, cremation is simple." Christians should not be hugely bothered by the trend-an omnipotent God can re-create a body whether burned or buried-but it seems to accompany tendencies to treat a corpse as a piece of meat rather than a temple of the Holy Spirit.

New Age approaches

Barbara Mark & Trudy Griswold, Heaven & Beyond: Conversations with Souls in Transition

Stories about messages from the dead: My favorite is from a woman whose father was active in the stock market. She reports, "One night I had a very vivid dream in which my father got right in front of my face. We were nose to nose and he kept saying to me, 'Buy AOL, buy AOL.' I remember saying in the dream that I knew nothing about stocks and had never invested in my life. He adamantly replied, 'Trust me. Buy AOL.' I knew better than to argue when he is in one of those moods even if he is on the other side. What was most interesting is that his stock tip came before the stock split and before there was any announcement of a merger with Time Warner. I bought the stock and am still holding tight. I wonder if his tip could be considered insider trading?" The woman did not say whether her dad came back later to advise, adamantly, "Sell AOL, sell AOL."

Michael Newton, Destiny of Souls: New Case Studies of Lives Between Lives

Mr. Newton, a California-certified "Master Hypnotherapist," takes clients into the "deeper theta ranges of hypnosis" where they purportedly are conduits for various spirits. He explains how spirits use energy beams to communicate with us, and how the living can also use them. For example, a married couple "told me they combine their energy on the California freeways to push cars out of the fast line in front of them when they are in a hurry. When I asked if they tailgate, they said, 'No, we just direct a combined beam to the back of the driver's head and then fork the beam to the right (middle lane) and back again. They claim that over 50 percent of the time they are successful."

Howard Storm, My Descent Into Death

This story of an atheist who has a "near-death experience" and comes to believe in a New Age Jesus starts out in a gripping way. It concludes with Jesus and angels showing the author the world 200 years from now after New Age thinking has triumphed: "People raised food by sitting next to plants and communing with them. In a few minutes they could harvest mature fruits and vegetables.... Collectively, all the people of the world will control the weather. The climate will be regulated by the collective will of humankind ... all people will be able to communicate telepathically."

Comparative religion approaches

Colin Murray Parkes, Pittu Laungani, & Bill Young, eds., Death and Bereavement Across Cultures

Excellent chapters on Buddhism and Islam show the terror beneath the surface of these religions. Uwe P. Gielen tells a story of a Tibetan Buddhist farmer who has meditated occasionally and gone on pilgrimages but has not gone through the intensive discipline of a monk. During the six weeks after death, his spirit is blown around in a frightening series of interactions with phantoms who appear to cut off his head, rip out his heart, drink his blood, eat his flesh, and gnaw his bones. Desperate to find a womb that will give him shelter and peace, his spirit enters a woman's body as she is having intercourse and so is united with the new creation. While he is given another opportunity, the lesson is that he should have meditated more so that he would have been able, after death, to recognize ultimate reality: "From the Buddhist point of view, the person has then wasted his or her entire life and must begin all over again. What a waste of time!" Gerdien Jonker's chapter on Islam shows the power of the local religious leader, the imam, over not only the living but the reputation of the dead. "As soon as the last foot has resounded on the grave, as soon as silence has settled, the deceased will wake up and receive a visit, or so most people think." Two angels enter the grave and ask the deceased to state his faith in Allah, Muhammad, the Quran, Mecca, and his imam. The dead person cannot use his mouth or hands to answer, but the imam dismisses all the mourners, waits by the grave alone, and calls the deceased, who is supposed to show that all is well "by hitting his head with a bump against the wooden board." The mourners from a distance are happy when the imam calls only once, and purportedly hears the head bump-but the imam may also boom out the name of the dead 10 or even 20 times, after which people say, "No good."

Christopher Jay Johnson & Marsha G. McGee, eds., How Different Religions View Death and Afterlife

Not as good as the previous book, but Anne Pearson's essay on Hinduism points out the great fear of dying in the religion's early texts, along with an obsessive search for the rituals and esoteric knowledge that supposedly can conquer death. It's also intriguing that the chapters on non-Christian religions state what those religions teach, but the chapters on Christian denominations seem to announce doctrine by public-opinion poll. "Among Lutherans there is considerable diversity of opinion about how death should be interpreted," we are told: "Some Presbyterians have moved toward the belief that ultimately the love of God will prevail.... The vast majority of United Methodists believe in life after death."

Howard M. Spiro, Mary G. McCrea Curnen, & Lee Palmer Wandel, eds., Facing Death: Where Culture, Religion, and Medicine Meet

This is the least useful of the three sets of essays about various religious traditions, but it includes interesting insights such as this one by Arthur Imhof: "Along with the increase of our earthly life expectancy there has been a totally different, countervailing development. Because of the loss of our belief in eternal life, our lives have become infinitely shorter." This volume also shows how Muslims took the Christian concept of the Last Judgment and heightened the drama: "As human beings pour out of their graves, naked and dazzled, they are driven to the concourse of the Last Judgment, a smooth and white plain where they must stand in the blazing heat of the sun, streaming perspiration, waiting three hundred years without food or water."

W.Y. Evans-Wentz, ed., The Tibetan Book of the Dead (new edition)

Straight from the horse's mouth, with useful explanations of how this famous book came into existence, but a difficult read. The book does clarify the Tibetan Buddhist conception of the three intermediate states between life and death. The crucial question is whether the deceased can correctly identify what is reality and what is not during the weeks after his death, when he is blown around by karmic forces and encounters 42 peaceful deities but 58 wrathful ones.

Gehlek Rimpoche, Good Life, Good Death: Tibetan Wisdom on Reincarnation

This well-written book sugarcoats some of the less-attractive Buddhist themes, but shows how Buddhists have a sense of ingrown human sin superior to that of other nonbiblical religions. For example: "Anger pops up effortlessly, like toast out of a toaster. It's a habit. We may think we don't like getting angry but deep down ... anger gives us a temporary sense of satisfaction.... This is very difficult to see. Most of us deny it. If satisfaction weren't part of it, we wouldn't get hooked to the point where if we don't get angry, we become restless."

Jewish approaches

Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning

In this well-written, expanded version of his 1969 book, Rabbi Lamm summarizes Jewish customs from the moment of death through the funeral service and the year afterward. His explanation of the logic of resurrection is one that Christians could also use: "The belief in a bodily resurrection appears, at first sight, to be incredible to the contemporary mind. But when approached from the God's-eye view, why is rebirth more miraculous than birth? ... The idea of rebirth may appear strange because we have never experienced a similar occurrence." (Christianity, of course, has.) Rabbi Lamm also wonders, "If we ask of God only that He be just, can we expect that we ourselves will be resurrected? Who is so righteous as to be assured of that glorious reward? Hence, we call upon God's mercy that He revive us." (But on what basis do we call upon that mercy?)

Anita Diamant, Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead & Mourn As a Jew

Similar to Rabbi Lamm's book, with some generally applicable, homey touches. "Use the words dead and death. Terms like passed away or eternal rest are confusing to children.... Saying 'Grandpa died because he was sick' or 'Grandma died in the hospital' can create the fear that all illness leads to death or all hospital stays are fatal.... Be as specific as possible: 'Grandma's heart stopped working. Lots of times, doctors can help people with sick hearts get better, but sometimes, especially when people are very old, there is no medicine that works. That is why she died."

Neil Gillman, The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought

This useful introduction to a range of Jewish thought shows how different the Muslim and Jewish ideas of heaven are at different extremes. The medieval Jewish sage Maimonides lived among Muslims, knew their thinking well, and despised the idea of heaven as a place where "one eats and drinks [amid] beds of silk," where "rivers flow with wine and fragrant oils." Many Jewish sages have argued, like Buddhists, that "the body distracts us from intellectual striving and tempts us to seek the demeaning satisfactions of the body instead of the spiritual delights of philosophy. The ultimate conclusion of that position is that death is the final, longed-for liberation from the demands of the body."

Christian approaches

Richard John Neuhaus, As I Lay Dying

Rev. Neuhaus is one of the romantic realist writers of our day, and here he describes how he almost died and what he learned. He realized, "Our lives are lived in a succession of present moments, and the trick is to slow down the pace at which one moment is succeeded by another. 'Be still, and know that I am God,' says Psalm 46.... Having never stopped to live the present moment, we one day run out of present moments and discover we have not lived at all." This account, alternately gripping and reflecting, offers good news: "The truth is indestructible and the soul is capable of apprehending the truth."

George W. Bowman III, Dying, Grieving, Faith, and Family: A Pastoral Care Approach

Pastors do need help in dealing with their most difficult counseling task, but this poorly written book wanders over various aspects of psychology

Cornelius J. van der Poel, Sharing the Journey: Spiritual Assessment and Pastoral Response to Persons with Incurable Illnesses

Rev. Van der Poel, as head of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, developed a way of asking at the outset the questions that Studs Terkel and other secularists think are optional. The assessment tool shown and explained in Sharing the Journey takes us through questions that will bring out how the patient sees God, prayer, and church. Some of the wording could be improved, but this is a handy way to get started.

Erwin W. Lutzer, One Minute After You Die: A Preview of Your Final Destination

Rev. Lutzer, senior pastor at Moody Church in Chicago, wisely examines near-death experiences, biblical teaching about heaven and hell, and the preparations for death that we should make. He writes, "Dying grace does not mean that we will be free from sorrow, whether at our own impending death or the death of someone we love.... Sorrow and grief are to be expected. If we feel the pain of loneliness when a friend of ours moves from Chicago to Atlanta, why should we not feel genuine grief when a friend leaves us for heaven?" He notes, "In heaven we will rest, but it is not the rest of inactivity. We will most probably continue on some of the same kinds of projects we knew on earth.... Jonathan Edwards believed that the saints in heaven would begin by contemplating God's providential care of the church on earth and then move on to other aspects of the divine plan, and thus 'the ideas of the saints shall increase to eternity.'

John MacArthur, The Glory of Heaven

Rev. MacArthur works the biblical clues into a precise description of how the people God has saved will experience the new heaven and earth that God will create. He emphasizes the stimulation and pleasure of unbroken fellowship with God, and notes that food and light will not be needed. The New Jerusalem will not have a temple, since Christ himself will be permanently with us.


We can expect over the next two decades clever books that wine and dine readers on their way to death, but such works may merely repeat the error of the late 19th century's most popular preacher, Henry Ward Beecher. He wrote that those with terminal diseases should merrily proclaim, "That we are so near death is too good to be believed." When he died in 1887, blossoms and floral wreaths covered his casket and the pulpit; pink roses formed a "B." Ministers who imitated Beecher proclaimed that we should be happy, happy, happy all the time in the face of death. Gathered Gold, a typical book of quotations for current ministers to use in their sermons, includes anonymous sayings such as, "It is never too soon to begin to make friends with death."

that true? Should we make friends with death? Christ exhibited a different attitude. When Lazarus died, He wept. The Apostle Paul questioned the power of death-"Where is thy sting?"-but never saw it as a party favor. John Calvin wrote that death "has been destroyed in such a way as to be no longer fatal for believers, but not in such a way as to cause them no trouble." The reason: Death is not natural. As 20th-century theologian John Murray put it, "Man is not naturally mortal; death is not the debt of nature but the wages of sin."

That many people "through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery" (Hebrews 2:15) clearly shows a lack of faith. But Christians who are faithful yet unrealistic lack credibility. As C.S. Lewis noted in 1961, "It is hard to have patience with people who say 'There is no death' or 'Death doesn't matter.' There is death. And whatever is, matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn't matter." Christians err by taking either extreme position-frowning all the time or smiling all the time-in regard to death.

We need from Christian publishers more books that answer five questions: How does Christian belief lead to a realistic but optimistic attitude toward death? What can we learn from experiences of Christians who have gone before us? What practical steps should we take to increase the opportunity to die well? Why is the Christian understanding of what comes next superior to that of Islam, Buddhism, and other religions? Is there any satisfactory alternative?

Realistic optimism

J.I. Packer's Knowing Christianity (InterVarsity Press, 1999) and John Piper's Future Grace (Multnomah, 1998) each contain valuable insights about approaching death, but I have not included them in my list of 25 books because they are mostly about living, not dying.

Dr. Packer's realism is important, though. He writes, "Normal people do not look forward to dying, and there is good reason for that. We cannot expect the process to be pleasant; the prospect of going to give an account of oneself to God is awesome; and Christians know that physical death is the outward sign of that eternal separation from God which is the Creator's judgment on sin."

So what difference does being a Christian make? John Piper writes of two skydivers, both free-falling at the same speed, but with a crucial difference: One has a parachute, one does not. Only the person who knows he can land successfully will dodge panic as the ground approaches. If he's a first-time skydiver (as is everyone who dies; there are no practice dives), he will still be nervous, but intellectually and spiritually he will have the knowledge that he will not crater.

Furthermore, as Dr. Packer notes, "Dying well is one of the good works to which Christians are called, and Christ will enable us who serve Him to die well, however gruesome the physical event itself." Dying well, in this sense, is the opposite of making friends with death. It is like pitching well: The object is not to make friends with the batter, but to strike him out.

Past practitioners of realistic optimism

We can learn much about dying well from Christian predecessors. Leonard Hoar, president of Harvard College from 1672 to 1675, did not minimize natural fears of death: "The traveler is afraid to pass when the evening is come," and death can "pierce and pain." But he told fellow Christians to put on the whole armor of God to protect themselves from trouble at the end, since Satan used the opportunity of weakened bodies to produce "despair, and casting away of our hope." And Hoar insisted that God provided "grace to help in this time of need that takes away the sting."

Has that been the case? We have early church histories of notable martyrs, but we need solidly researched, realistic histories of how ordinary Christians in America have died, and how they have reacted to the deaths of loved ones. When the wife of Joseph Tompson of Massachusetts died in 1679, he wrote of the effects on his family: "the want of her prayer" and of "her daily nurture & instruction" of their children. He mourned the loss of "a soul friend, a loving neighbor, a tender mother, & a Dear Dutiful wife.... The benefit of her Company was ever desirable-her Countenance to me exceedingly lovely." And yet, he wrote that while he was "bitterly lamenting," she was "triumphing" in heaven. Death, he noted, was an unnatural tearing apart of relationships, but he was confident that they would be restored in a superior fashion.

Realistic optimism about caring for the dying and the dead

We need books that examine our current ways of dying in America. I'm all for at-home care that allows the terminally ill to be with their families rather than surrounded by hospital machinery, but Virginia Morris points out, "Some patients do not want to be at home because their home life is stressful.... One fellow who knew he was dying spent a year in an intensive care unit because he said he didn't mind the tubes and interruptions, and he loved watching television all day and being catered to by the staff." Taking care of the dying is expensive either in money or in time, and many who grumble about costs still prefer paying through the nose to investing time and having the smell of death in their homes.

Complaints about funeral expenses should also be seen in terms of the time/money tradeoff. In the 19th century families typically invested time: Men made the coffin, women washed the corpse, other men dug the grave, other women made refreshments, and so on. Now, professionals handle it all and get everything done quickly, but with a loss of familial contact. The problems of dying increase when there have been problems in living: Are there ways to counteract both?

Christian beliefs compared with those of other religions

The Christian hope is not merely a hope in the immortality of the soul, because man is created to have a body, and an afterlife without one is not entirely satisfactory (as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5). It is also a hope in the resurrection of the body, which will not occur until Christ returns at some future point and finally subdues the last enemy, death. Christians possess a parachute, and through the example of Christ know that the parachute harness has a body in it. For a time after death Christians are in an imperfect, bodiless state, but when the time of waiting is over Christians will once again have a body-soul combination, this time in a glorified state, free of sin, and living in a new, perfect world.

Christians can strive for, in short, not the loss of self that is essential to Buddhist and Hindu development, nor the dull place of harps and clouds that still tends to be the conventional depiction of heaven. Christians can expect neither the library-like heaven depicted in Judaism nor the lascivious one offered by Islam. Instead, the Christian hope is for a new Eden, with new adventures and productive activities, not frustrating ones doomed to failure. Christians can expect joy everlasting, for the curse of death and all the small daily deaths suffered because of sin will be gone.

Conclusion: Faith in God's sovereignty

If life is purposeless, death is meaningless. Dying well generally comes down to an issue of faith that God means well and not ill for us. In this life we learn about God's grace through sometimes hard experience. Biblical preparation for dying does not mean sitting around trading macabre thoughts, swooning in coffins, or taking courses in thanatology. It does mean learning over the years to accept that God is the Creator and we are His creatures, even unto the sadness of death.

If life is absurd, death is meaningless. Michigan pastor Robert Zagore noted in 1997 that "A deathbed is a hard place to teach the faith. It is much better learned day by day, week by week." But someone who is faithful knows that God will be faithful through death and beyond. He wrote of an elderly, long-time member of his church: "When I last saw her, she was in the hospital bed she would not leave alive. The last words I spoke to her were 3,400 years older than she.... 'The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His countenance on you and give you peace.' She knew He would. The last word I heard her say, I overheard her say to God: 'Amen.'"

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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